Saying What Israel Wants to Hear

September 12, 1996 - Rabbi Avi Weiss - Washington Jewish Week OpEd

The 40th anniversary of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was celebrated last week with an exclusive New York gala and full page ads. Leading Israeli and American politicians including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice President Al Gore gathered to pay tribute to the organization viewed by the White House as representative of the American Jewish community, particularly on issues affecting Israel.

But the glare of the spotlight of public attention is undeserved. The Conference does not represent the will of the people.

This should not be surprising when considering the origins of the Conference. It came into existence in 1956 at the behest of former US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles--no friend of Israel. Irritated that so many Jewish organizations were approaching the White House, Dulles insisted that there be one voice speaking for the Jewish community.

But since the creation of that one voice, the Jewish community has too often found itself ill-represented. In its search for consensus, the Conference can stake out only those positions which will not offend its constituent members. Too often it reaches for the lowest common denominator on many of the issues it addresses, or, as is most often the case, in its timidity, it chooses not to address the issues at all.

I am aquainted with many of the key players of the Conference. I know them to be decent people. But it is not uncommon for members of the Presidents' Conference to say only that which they believe will be acceptable to the Israeli government currently in power or the White House.

The Conference lacks backbone. It facilitates whatever policies originate in Jerusalem or Washington. On May 28th of this year, for instance, the Conference strongly supported the peace process engineered by Yitzhak Rabin and then-Prime-Minister Shimon Peres. On May 30th, just one day after Netanyahu's victory, this same Conference was supportive of the new government's approach.

The songwriter Billy Joel once wrote: "Honesty is such a lonely word." When it comes to Israeli politics, the President's Conference has failed to honestly express an independent ideological doctrine.

It acts similarly in the American political arena. For example, when Strobe Talbott was nominated for assistant secretary of state, the Zionist Organization of America--a Conference member, lobbied against the nomination and publicized Talbot's numerous essays written for Time magazine which were overtly hostile to Israel. As a result, significant concern was raised in the pro-Israel Jewish community. Still, the Presidents' Conference said nothing on the matter. In fact, two Conference leaders arranged a meeting with Talbot and emerged, telling the press that they felt comfortable with the White House nominee.

To be sure, there have been times when the Conference challenged the White House. To wit, the Conference's criticism of President Bush's notorious comment of one lonely guy being confronted by 1,000 Jewish lobbyists on the Hill. But by and large, the Conference compromises on principle.

Although the Conference is made up of presidents of American Jewish organizations, it is not a democratic institution. It's chair is not elected in an open and fair vote. Two Conference leaders huddle over the appointment of a tiny nominating committee. This unelected committee recommends a candidate who is then placed in office by the "acclaim" of Conference members. Nor does the Conference deal with issues in a democratic way. This umbrella group, which claims to represent the body politic of American Jewry, cannot be taken seriously when it has held only two or three meetings over the past three years to openly discuss issues and provides no opportunity for members to raise topics not on the agenda.

Not withstanding all these shortcomings, the Conference prepared this 40th anniversary celebration with one purpose in mind: to further project the image of the Conference as THE spokesperson for the American Jewish community. Too often, however, the President's Conference is out of touch with the will of the people.

The Jonathan Pollard case--the naval officer who transferred classified material to Israel--illustrates the problem. In an unprecedented show of unity and grassroots support, one thousand rabbis, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist, signed a petition to the President of the United States on Pollard's behalf. Rabbis are the Jewish leaders most in touch with the people. Their extraordinary support for Pollard makes clear where the community stands on this issue.

Despite this, never once has the Conference raised the Pollard issue in a formal meeting with the President of the United States - thereby giving the President the impression that the Pollard case is not a priority issue in our community. At the anniversary event no Conference official publicly spoke about the importance of the President commuting Pollard's sentence. How may we expect the President to do that which we do not demand of him to do?

The issue here is one of empowerment. Does the Conference speak for the Jewish community? Does it represent the will of the people? Perhaps the following experiment should be conducted. Stop the first 100 Jews in the street outside Conference offices and ask them if they know the names of the leaders of the Conference? Odds are few will, and even fewer will know the positions they espouse.

To be sure,there is no institution in America today that can claim to represent the Jewish community. But the very absence of true representation should provide the impetus for developing a plan to democratically elect a body that will accurately reflect the views of Am Yisrael.

How unfortunate that at the President's Conference event, no one stood up to declare: This bash is nothing less than the classic tale of "the Emperor Has No Clothes."

Rabbi Avi Weiss is national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY.